By Denise Winterman
Playwright Alan Bennett had his wallet, with £1,500, stolen by pickpockets pretending to clean ice-cream from his coat. It's a classic scam, so what others should you look out for?
He's not the first person to fall for such a scam. The back of Alan Bennett's raincoat was splattered with ice-cream by two women and a man, who then pretended to clean it off, while they pinched the writer's wallet from a pocket.
Bennett, whose works include his Talking Heads monologues, The Madness Of George III and The History Boys, said the incident was "most upsetting". The fact he had been carrying £1,500 in cash couldn't have made it any easier.
The "distraction" scam is a favourite with thieves in London and police have repeatedly warned tourists and shoppers to be on their guard. But what other ploys should people watch out for?
1. THE SQUIRT
This is also known as the mustard dip, the ketchup dip or the bird poo and like the sting used on Bennett. It's a classic scam which involves thieves getting the attention of their prey by squirting something on them. It can be a white mixture that looks like a pigeon's handiwork on someone's shoulder in the street or tomato ketchup in a cafe.
The scammer then helps their target clean up the mess, offering tissues, and while they do so steal the person's wallet.
Like all good scams it's about creating an opportunity, says R Paul Wilson, part of the BBC's Real Hustle team. The BBC Three show re-creates classic cons on unsuspecting members of the public in an effort raise awareness of thieves' techniques.
"[Thieves] engineer a situation where they have a reason to be close to you, where you are distracted and your suspicions are dropped for a few seconds - and that's all it takes to rob you." Learning about such techniques is the best protection, he says. Then you aware of when you are in vulnerable situations.
2. THE PHOTO
People are often asked to take photos
Again, another variation of the "distraction" technique. A couple will ask their target to take a photograph of them and proceed to explain how the camera works. While their target is listening they are pick-pocketed by a third person.
They may even put their bag down to take the photo and it is easily snatched. The couple may stick around to "help" the victim. When the Real Hustle recreated this scam, the "helpful" accomplices offered to call the victim's bank so she could cancel her cards.
The victim proceeded to give her bank details and Pin... only the person on the other end of the line wasn't a bank employee at all, but a colleague of the scammers.
"This is all about taking advantage of someone's reaction to a theft," says Mr Wilson. "Their emotions are running high and they are looking for help. They don't stop and think about what they are doing."
3. THE ESCALATOR
"Everyone has a daily routine and good con artists try to tap into that because then your suspicions aren't alerted," says Mr Wilson.
So there you are, minding your own business, about to get off the escalator and the person in front drops their loose change. They are scrabbling to pick it up, you may try to help, it causes a bit of a jam and you have people bumping up behind you as they try to get off.
It quickly becomes a bit of a bundle. As it turns out the person in front and behind you are pickpockets and in the jumble, they have lifted your phone from your bag or pocket. "Good scams have been around for hundreds of years, they are just redressed and replayed according to how the world changes around us," says Mr Wilson.
4. THE SHOULDER SURF
Don't look down
You may think you are being vigilant but thieves are clever. At the cash point you carefully key in you Pin and the amount you want to withdraw, then you feel a tap on the shoulder and the person behind you asks if you have dropped a £10 note lying on the floor.
You take a quick look, maybe impressed by their honesty, say no and turn back. Your money is there, but not your bank card.
The theft is achieved by the "helpful" person memorising your Pin and then distracting you at the precise moment his accomplice grabs the bank card as it is released from the machine. Within minutes, they will be at another cash points withdrawing as much cash as they can from your account. "A good scam manipulates you into acting a certain way, often by helping you," says Mr Wilson.
Practised thieves are also good psychologists and use social pressure to distract and embarrass their victims - like the pressure of a queue.
5. THE GOOD SAMARITAN
Beware the needy businessman
"Most people get a warm feeling from helping someone, it makes us feel good about ourselves and con artists prey on that," says Mr Wilson.
That's why an appeal for help will always work on someone. On the Real Hustle a member of the team dressed up as a businessman and told passersby he'd had his briefcase stolen. He asked for a small amount of money to get a tube ticket and asked for the person's business card so he could repay them.
The scam netted more than £50 in one hour.
"We all get a warm feeling for helping and if the person seems to be like us we empathise with them. What distinguishes a con artist from a mugger is that they will ask for the contents of your wallet rather than just taking it, and often you give it to them."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I was the victim of a squirt scam some years ago in Islington, London. In my case, I had withdrawn a few £k in cash from a local bank, and had clearly been targeted. I was squirted, then went into a nearby cafe's toilets. There I was distracted by money being dropped (oh no, I thought, that's mine); whilst I retrieved it, my money was switched in my coat for a pre-prepared envelope (bearing the Bank's identification) stuffed with newspaper. When I patted my pockets to check nothing was missing, I was satisfied, so moved on. Very sophisticated, involved several different players, and clearly well-rehearsed. Be careful out there!
Silas Denyer, London, UK
Recently in St Petersburg, a photographer was waiting to cross the road when he heard coins clatter to the ground by his feet. Thinking they might be his, he bent down to look and in that short time, thieves took a valuable lens from his camera and were gone.
I've been standing in a crowded bus when suddenly someone nearby seemed to fall over and knock everyone else. While I was trying to stop falling over the 'someone' was emptying my pocket. I didn't realise until several stops later, by which time of course it was too late.
One I got stung with was at a concert venue in London. Having queued up outside, tickets in hand, my friend and I were admitted inside, where one of the "staff" took our tickets with a smile. Another "member of staff" distracted us, when we turned around, the first guy had gone. We started to protest, were told to wait outside, then were offered two tickets from a tout. We really wanted to see the gig, so we ended up buying the tout's tickets. It only occurred to us later (we had been drinking a fair bit, I have to say) that the tickets we'd bought for about 2x the price were probably the very tickets that had been taken from us in the first place. An easy £50 for the touts, and the staff at the venue were all too happy to have this happen.
I have been conned in Camden. I was on the street, on my mobile, and a guy came up to me saying he was about to get a ticket, and did I have change for the parking meter? I gave him a £1 coin, and he thanked me and walked off. When I finished my call, I realised that it was a con. A few months later, I saw the same man doing the same thing to someone else. I'm not sure if he broke the law - there was no theft, he just persuaded me to give him money!
My mum and I were the target about a year ago on a retail park in Colchester when a woman came up to us saying that she needed a couple of pounds to buy her a train ticket as her car had broken down and she needed to get home urgently but had left her purse at home after dropping a friend off. We were happy to help but then walked to another shop a little later and found her doing the same thing there! i asked for my money back, which she gave us and apologised - we reported her to security and they said "not again" - obviously she had been scamming frequently!
Rachel , Colchester
1. I always keep my ID & plastic in a holder in my left front pocket, and my cash in a holder in my right front pocket, along with my phone. The only things I keep in my back pockets are my Palm III (with only ebooks on it) and tissues. Good luck to any thieves trying to get anything valuable from me! 2. When entering *any* PIN, place three fingers across the row of buttons, and 'twiddle' them as you press the one you want. Nobody studying them can tell which one of the three you pressed.
Stories like these only serve to make people even more paranoid, and worst of all suspicious of honest people. I mean I am sure majority of people offering to clean or taking a picture are genuine. It reminds me when I was in Madrid, all guides say North African youths ask you for directions to distract you while their friend mugs you. Well, being a 21-year-old male of Pakistani descent (suppose most people cannot tell the difference), I found it very difficult to get directions from anyone as they all thought I was part of some kind of scam! It got very frustrating. I love helping people, being a good Samaritan, offering to take pictures for couples etc, and the last thing we need is for people to fear the good in humanity! 99 times out of 100 it is a great lesson in humanity, especially in a big, diverse city like London. Let's not let the 1% ruin that.
Saad C, Washington, DC
Wind screen washing lady in Deptford, gave her pound, which she then accidently dropped back through window so it was not easily retrieved. Gave her another. When arrived home found 'coin' just a piece of coin coloured metal. So she doubled her money for about 10 seconds work!
There's a guy in London city who has a great scam. He is approx 50 years old, is obviously educated and wears a suit. Typically on the weekend (when usally only tourists hang about the financial district) he wonders up to you and states he's lost his cell phone and asks for a pound to call his daughter so she can pick him up. He's very convincing, sincere, dressed well, clean shaven and uses the 'daughter' card to gain trust. I fell for this once until he approached me again. I couldn't believe how good he was. I suspect he doesn't actually need the money and that he is just a bit strange. Beware!
Dan , London
I was once pick-pocketed by some people who were pretending to be quite drunk, fun and keen to give hugs to passer-bys. Lesson learnt!
Ian Noon, London
I once got my expensive new mobile phone robbed on a trip to London. I was having a pint in a pub in the city with my friend when two young boys came up to us and started speaking in a foreign language while pointing at a map. I was looking at the map and asking what they wanted/where they wanted to go, but they just left. It was only 15 minutes later I realised my mobile had been stolen from my pocket at the time. I approached the bar manager who said it happened all the time in there! They couldn't have been any older than 8-10 either!
A chap in Clifton in Bristol walks along the same road every day. Dressed like anyone else, he looks sheepish, carries a petrol can and says that he has run out of petrol and left his wallet at home, and could you please spare him a quid. I could tell this was dodgy a mile off for some reason, I'm fairly switched on, but for fun one time, I gave him a couple of quid... then followed him down the street. Saw him doing it over and over, kept following him, whereupon he deposited the can (after about 30 minutes of walking around) into his car, went into a local pub and started buying drinks. He was even meeting friends of his. A few weeks later I saw him again, smiled to myself and asked him about it. He laughed, wasn't in the least embaressed and said that he does it all the time for his beer money rather than have his missus nag at him! He didn't think it was even vaguely dishonest to lie to people he didn't know about something harmless, and he said he'd been doing it for years and would continue. I chuckled a bit and moved on, slightly shocked that someone so normal would have such a glaring lack of morals. Crazy.